Reading and Writing for Peace

Leon Litvack on bringing amateur and professional writers together and how poetry can 'aid people's thinking'

Poetry has long been embraced by those who label themselves writers and those who do not, as a unique and accessible form of expression to deal with and counter emotional events, good or bad.

It is for this reason that Queen’s University lecturer and Community Relations Council board member, Leon Litvack, has chosen poetry as the basis for a new project, Reading and Writing for Peace: A Celebration of the Peace Palace Centenary.

Over the past year, Litvack has invited writers and non-writers from across Northern Ireland to participate in a variety of workshops to explore what peace means to them. The sessions also consider the significance of the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, and look at local poems focused on peace and reconciliation, before giving participants the space to compose their own poetry.

'Initially, it was targeted at people who were likely to have a troubled legacy, but it’s moved beyond that,' explains Leon. 'We’ve had women’s groups and groups with ex-RUC, ex-police and ex-fire service men, groups which have offered a more experiential aspect, not necessarily writers. I then offered it over to writers’ groups and writers to join in, so there’s been a range.'

With more than 100 people taking part in the project so far, many say the experience has 'opened a door for them', according to Litvack, particularly those who don’t usually write, such as one Bob Larmour, who wrote the 'shape poem' entitled 'Prods and Taigs' at a recent Reading and Writing for Peace workshop at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast.

As for why he chose poetry as the central form of the project, Litvack says: 'You can get meaningful poetry out of people in six hours of workshops, but you might not get the same from prose or drama in that time. It’s a tight format and involves the concentration of emotion.'

The project also celebrates the example of the Peace Palace which, as Leon explains, 'isn’t just a nice building, it houses the Permanent Court of International Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library'.

Officially opened on August 28, 1913, the Peace Palace serves as a unique international icon of peace and justice, and the poems from the Reading and Writing for Peace workshops will be sent there in ‘Treasure Boxes’ as part of the project’s legacy strand.

The poems will also be sent to the project funder, the Community Relations Council, and to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as to the Public Record Office in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, a book featuring a selection of the poems alongside work from professional Northern Irish poets is planned for 2015. A performance event also took place in Belfast in June, with Ciaran Carson, Leontia Flynn and Moyra Donaldson reading their poetry alongside the workshop poets.

'There are three levels of experience,' Litvack adds. 'Everybody who participates has the opportunity to have their poems uploaded onto the Facebook page. Then there’s the performance, and there will be a few poets whose work has been studied in the workshops who will also read. I want it to be a kind of conversation and for people to feel they’re all on the same sort of level.

'After that, a selection will be made for publication. I hope to attach an introduction, which will explain the context and the Peace Palace and the various methodologies used by the different facilitators to get people to write, and to look at how poetry can aid people’s thinking if they read it, and if they write it.'

Having visited the Peace Palace last August to celebrate the centenary, and having previously worked alongside victims of the Troubles in his former role as chair of the Victims’ Committee, Litvack is keen to show how literature can contribute constructively to ideas about peace and reconciliation.

'I want this project to have a life beyond what the participants can produce. I think the arts have already done a lot – Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and so on, who all wrote about the period of the Troubles – their work is read widely.

'It offers people from other cultures and places a way into what we’re doing here [in Northern Ireland], without having to become bogged down or jaded by drier or more biased views of history. I think there are ways in which literature can aid this.

'Northern Irish poetry has moved on though. There aren’t mainstream professional poets now who are writing about the Troubles. Poets like Sinéad Morrissey and Leontia Flynn certainly grew up with the Troubles as part of their heritage, but they don’t dwell on that, because maybe it doesn’t mean as much to them. Maybe they’re also concerned about other things.'

Such is the case with those who have taken part in the Reading and Writing for Peace project, with a plethora of themes and subjects tackled by writers of all ages and from differing backgrounds. Those poems will be available to read in the months ahead.

For more details, visit the Reading and Writing for Peace Facebook page or follow on Twitter @PeacePoetryNI.